Arsenal risk slip in WSL as lack of squad depth could mean another bleak winter

With a crucial period ahead, Eidevall’s squad looks depleted. Mead’s ACL rupture on top of other long-term injury woes poses a key threat to Arsenal’s WSL campaign — and it has become an unpleasant reminder of how the Gunner’s fixtures panned out just 12 months ago, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.

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When Arsenal stepped out onto the Wembley grass on December 5, 2021, everything in Jonas Eidevall’s tenure was going smoothly. From the start of the season win over Chelsea at the Emirates to reaching the delayed final of the 2021-22 FA Cup, it had been a seamless transition into this new era of the club. But when Chelsea roared out of the blocks against them, the honeymoon period was firmly over. Suddenly injuries and exhaustion were the centrepieces for Arsenal, putting their season under threat.

It feels like history is in danger of repeating itself. After the 3-0 FA Cup loss to Chelsea, Arsenal had a surprise loss to Hoffenheim in the Champions League. And whilst that didn’t stop them progressing in the competition, the 2-0 loss to bottom-of-the-table Birmingham did derail their WSL title bid.

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When Everton arrive at Meadow Park tomorrow, Arsenal risk extending their winless streak to three games, following a Champions League draw with Juventus. Last season, they only had one winless streak that long and, having dropped their first WSL points of the season against Manchester United, will be more than aware that once Chelsea have the bit between their teeth they rarely slip up.

On paper, Chelsea’s December is much kinder than Arsenal’s. They could potentially wrap up Champions League qualification next week whilst Arsenal will have to juggle visits from Lyon and Juventus. Chelsea face the two sides bottom of the WSL Leicester and Reading, whilst Arsenal have matches against two teams with a potential to cause problems in Everton and Aston Villa.

But if Arsenal are to get through this time period intact, they will have to do it with a heavily depleted team. Kim Little and Beth Mead are long-term absentees. Leah Williamson, Lina Hurtig and Rafaelle Souza have also been out for a while. There is some suggestion that some of those players will be back sooner rather than later, but their fitness levels will not come back immediately.

“If you are going to compete in Europe and you have a squad size of 23, that allows for more players to be in the match squad than the WSL,” said Eidevall earlier in the season. “That will put you in a dilemma when you’re building a squad to compete domestically because if you have a squad of 23 players, you need to leave three of those players off the bench.”

Arsenal started the season with a squad of 21. Given the rumoured targets that Arsenal missed out on — they were linked to Geyse Ferreira, Jelena Cankovic and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd — it is feasible that this was not entirely due to Eidevall’s squad philosophy. But they did also let new signing Gio Queiroz head to Everton so they were clearly happy with the number of players available.

That supposition has been borne out in how Eidevall has used his squad. Clearly reluctant to rotate his team, Arsenal have had five players start every game in the WSL this season: Manuela Zinsberger, Mead, Katie McCabe, Lia Wälti, and Caitlin Foord. Obviously that will drop to four this weekend due to Mead’s ACL injury.

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Compare that to Chelsea who only have two players to have started every game (Millie Bright and Erin Cuthbert) and Manchester City who have had three (Laia Aleixandri, Laura Coombs, and Bunny Shaw). The question of whether a bigger squad would have helped Arsenal seems redundant in the face of a manager who has only given Mana Iwabuchi 97 minutes across all competitions this season. Only recently has Jordan Nobbs begun to get actual game time.

As the season has gone on, Arsenal have been forced to rely on ever smaller groups of players due to the injuries they have picked up, and players’ performances have declined as a result. Until the past two matches it looked like Arsenal might be able to navigate this period of time with limited impact on results. Now they face up to their toughest stretch yet, having struggled to learn lessons from last season. When they looked back on winter a year ago, it was there that they got spread too thin. It is concerning that Eidevall might be making the same mistakes again.

Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph

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